Movie Review ~ I Am Woman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: This uplifting biopic tells the story of Helen Reddy, the fiercely ambitious Australian singer behind the 1971 megahit anthem that became the rallying cry of the women’s liberation movement.

Stars: Tilda Cobham-Harvey, Evan Peters, Danielle Macdonald, Chris Parnell, Matty Cardarople, Rita Rani Ahuja, Molly Broadstack

Director: Unjoo Moon

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  There’s nothing Hollywood loves more than jumping on a bandwagon so I’m fairly surprised that after the unexpected success of the extremely mediocre Bohemian Rhapsody in 2018 and the emotional satisfaction derived from the superior Elton John biopic Rocketman in 2019 there haven’t been an influx of similar musical biographies.  Before those films arrived, previous efforts at presenting the life stories of legends of the music industry had been spotty and only a select few managed to break past a paint-by-the-numbers approach to a life-story.  What about that long in the planning Dolly Parton film about her journey from the Smokey Mountains to finding fame in Nashville and the film industry?  Then there were the multiple projects at one time in the works set to cover the life of Janis Joplin that couldn’t get off the ground.  Surely, audience reaction to a Queen musical would fuel some further interest in those properties…right?

It’s interesting, then, that the first real film to be released that charts the ascent of a star singer doesn’t even come from Hollywood at all.  Arriving from Down Under, I Am Woman centers on Australian soft-rock vocalist Helen Reddy and how the single mother packed up her daughter and left their life in Melbourne with dreams and determination to make it as a recording artist.  At a time when her style of music wasn’t considered fashionable by executives that didn’t truly know what their market audience was looking for, Reddy hit a nerve in the industry with her #1 song that became the ever-present theme for the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.

Arriving in New York City in the late 1960s, Helen (Tilda Cobham-Harvey) thinks she’s secured a recording contract after winning a contest back in Australia, only to learn from an oily recording executive that there’s no place for her kind of singing on their roster.  The music of The Beatles was popular and women didn’t sell records, besides, this record company already had their request solo female artist signed so…they couldn’t take on another one.  Reaching out to another NY transplant from her hometown for advice, rock journalist Lillian Roxon (Danielle Macdonald, Paradise Hills), Helen begins singing at low-paying nightclub.

Up until this point, director Unjoo Moon keeps the film coloring inside the lines almost to a fault.  The script from Emma Jensen is jammed with eye-rolling dialogue that intends to tell you the true nature of everyone’s character from their first spoken line.  Helen’s meeting with the music exec is misogynistic to the point of parody as is an exchange between her and the club owner trying to stiff her on her pay.  Everything just feels so stodgy that you want things to loosen up just a tad, I mean, this was the 60s after all.  The relationship between Helen and Lillian proves for interesting interplay between two women that were capable of more than what people expected of them but it’s clear Lillian will be a sideline character quickly after Jeff Wald (Evan Peters, X-Men: Dark Phoenix) enters the picture and sweeps Helen off her feet.

A William Morris agent, at first Wald sends off all the traditional warning bells of an Ike Turner in the making but curiously manages to not follow the path you think he’ll tread.  Though initially challenged by Helen’s tenacity he appears to be someone that doesn’t just love Helen but actually believes in her too…though it takes a while (and a cross-country move) for him to make good on his promise to get her foot in the door with his music connections.  When she finally arrives, buoyed on the success of a hit cover of I Don’t Know How to Love Him and then the blockbuster phenomenon of I Am Woman, her fame comes with the usual gains and losses.  The marriage to Wald is put to the test because of his drug and gambling addiction and her personal relationships with her friends and children are strained when she’s forced into choosing between her life as a performer and her offstage persona.

Objectively speaking, I Am Woman is fairly standard stuff and is akin to a rock skipping across the surface of a very wide and deep lake.  There’s a lot more to the story of Helen Reddy and a much deeper emotional well to mine, that’s for certain, but what’s presented onscreen feels respectful and ultimately an agreeable watch.  It helps immensely that Cobham-Harvey is positively electric as Helen, ably navigating the insecurities hiding behind perceived strength and wrestling with her own feelings of liberation while in a unique situation of her own where she feels at odds with the strong woman she sings about nightly.  Sadly, I was disappointed that she doesn’t do her own singing (Reddy’s vocals are either from her own recordings or recreated by Chelsea Cullen) and at times it shows that she’s just mouthing the words but overall she has Reddy’s mannerisms down.  I liked Peters as well, though his performance begins to slide into a series of sniffs and ticks as Wald’s addictions to drugs intensifies.

In addition to having a near ace-in-the-hole with its leading lady, I Am Woman also boasts cinematography from Memoirs of a Geisha Oscar-winner Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns).  Married to the director, BeeBe gives the film a radiant vibe and the faithfully recreated period production design from Michael Turner (The Great Gatsby) is overall exceptional, same goes for Emily Seresin’s (The Invisible Man) appropriately groovy costumes.  Hearing some of Reddy’s songs is quite nice, especially since Moon lets at least three of them play full out (including I Am Woman twice) but there’s little mention of Reddy’s work outside of the music world, including her film or stage work.  As one of Australia’s most respected performers, it’s right that the still living Reddy should get such a luxe film but I only wish the movie on the whole were quite as detailed as the sets and costumes that surround its star.

31 Days to Scare ~ Paradise Hills

The Facts:

Synopsis: A mysterious boarding school perfectly reforms wayward girls to fit their surroundings’ exact desires.

Stars: Emma Roberts, Eiza Gonzalez, Awkwafina, Danielle Macdonald, Milla Jovovich, Jeremy Irvine

Director: Alice Waddington

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives was first published, in 1972 it came at a time when the women’s liberation movement was starting to gain greater momentum on a national level and the book served as a good reminder that conformity could be downright dangerous.  Adapted as a chilling movie in 1975, the term “Stepford Wife” became a term used to describe a woman who appeared submissive to her spouse – not the nicest of terms.  A 2004 remake tried hard to update the social satire for a different generation in the new millennium but studio tinkering and behind-the-scenes turmoil turned the film into a sour mess.

There’s a whiff of Stepford hanging over the new release Paradise Hills but don’t go looking for extreme similarities between the two because this is better than just another reimagining of that original text.  Written by Nacho Vigalondo and Brian DeLeeuw working from a story by director Alice Waddington, it takes some ideas from Levin but largely cuts its own path in creating a creative narrative.  Waddington, a Spanish artist making her feature directing debut, contributes a highly visual film that doesn’t compensate flair for plot.  It’s artsty-fartsy but still takes time to connect the dots.

Kicking things off with a glam wedding designed to the hilt, Waddington takes some inspiration from Tarsem (The Cell) in her camera movements and attention to details in the foreground and background.  It’s nuptials day for Uma (Emma Roberts, We’re the Millers) and while she smiles, greets her guests and sings a song for her new husband, something doesn’t seem quite right.  Later that evening we’ll find out why but not before flashing back several months to Uma arriving at Paradise, an isolated island she’s been sent to for refusing to marry the man her parents set her up with.  Independent and single-minded, she loves another (Jeremy Irvine, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again) and wants to live free from the constraints of her family and societal norms.

Ruled by the Duchess (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), Paradise is a tranquil finishing (more like re-finishing) school wealthy families can send their daughters to if they are in need of a little attitude adjustment.  Maybe they need to lose weight like Chloe (Danielle Macdonald, The East), perhaps they struggle with anxiety disorder like Yu (Awkwafina, The Farewell) or, in the case of famous pop singer Amarna (Eiza Gonzalez, Welcome to Marwen), they could just need a break from mainstream culture.  At first, the courses administered are designed to change their outward appearance but things take a darker turn when the inward feelings are targeted.

As the girls get closer they begin to see the island and its presiding Duchess have a devious plan for them all, one that’s been hidden in the depths of the labyrinthine estate they live in.  When girls start disappearing and the Duchess begins to demonstrate some rather strange behavior that seems to have a direct impact on the island’s flora, Uma leads her new friends in a plan to escape before their nightmare stay in Paradise becomes permanent.  Unable to stay awake through the night to explore what is being kept from them, Uma and Amarna team up to find a way to outwit the authority figures and get to the bottom of what seems to be coming for them.

While not as outright a horror film as I could see it tiptoeing around at times wanting to be, enough of the action is steeped in mystery that you can’t help but feel its occasional electric charge when it uncovers another clue.  The solution is fairly obvious but the answer isn’t as simple as you’d expect.  The performances are strong throughout, with Roberts continuing to hone her skills and improving with each role she takes on.  I especially liked Jovovich playing a quasi-fairy tale queen with a sinister edge.  If this had been made ten years ago, I could easily have seen Jovovich in the Roberts role.  Though hampered by some limitations in budget and issues with follow-through of the intriguing ideas it introduces, it succeeds more than I anticipated it would.